IGC Magazine
March 2002

The DVD Debate

by Kathleen Fairweather

DVD versus VHS? It seems like a no-brainer: With record-breaking sales of DVD players, DVD appears to rule the motion picture delivery universe. For the consumer, DVD provides a viewing experience with superior picture and audio quality – not to mention multiple audio tracks, subtitles, multi-camera angles, seamless branching alternate endings and director's cuts. Plus, thematic menus with animated transitions, interactivity, random and instant scene access, and, all of the fun extras the studios throw in.


But what does this mean to the cinematographer? For one thing, it means that the picture is preserved on a medium with an imperishable shelf life. The images had better look the way the DP intended, as it may be the final legacy and a preserved archive of his or her work.

Therefore, it seems crucial that the cinematographer retain the integrity of the image and authorship of his work through the initial telecine and any future remastering of the picture for DVD. Steve Poster, President, ASC acknowledges this issue. "The involvement of cinematographers in the telecine remastering of their work for DVD should be mandatory." He notes that Someone To Watch Over Me, a feature film he shot in 1987was remastered to DVD without his participation. "I've never been involved in any of the remastering –- which I find incredible. I would've loved to have participated in that telecine.but unless we are notified, how would we know when our pictures are being remastered?

He recalls his experience with the feature film Donnie Darko. "I was lucky it was shot with the DVD in mind. We did a telecine to an HD master. Although I participated in the mastering of the DVD. I was not invited to do the audio commentary. I was told they had no room on the disc -- which I find hard to believe.

"New films are going in the direction of HD mastering, but we need to be notified about the films we have worked on in the past. The studios and production companies need to call us. They are diminishing the worth of their own product and the artistry of the cinematographer. It's a huge issue.

"In fact, while I was working on the HD transfer of Donnie Darko, I walked into one of the other telecine rooms and found someone doing the remaster of Smoke. I asked him if Adam Hollander, the DP on that picture, knew that they we were remastering. The guy said, 'Who's Adam Hollander?' I got on the phone to Adam and asked if him he knew they were remastering Smoke. He said 'no' and was on the phone to them the next day."

Richard Crudo, ASC concurs that this is not unusual. "Nine of my pictures are out on DVD and I was not asked to participate in the audio commentary on any of them. I would have jumped at the opportunity. It's a great forum for people to learn about what we do."

Michael Goi says he too, has not been invited to sit in on a commentary. Goi, who is fresh off the Paramount shoot of Judas said, "I'm going to bring it up with Paramount when they prepare Judas for the DVD release. There's a lot that can be said about production and cinematography that the audience can relate to. I know they're inviting composers and costume designers, so why not cinematographers?"

Goi is also concerned about the telecine of the master and supervises the mastering over to HD He finds himself involved much more in post if there are a lot of special effects. "There are so many factors that can effect the look of the scene. For example, with Judas a few scenes were earmarked for a bleach bypass. For some reason, they weren't processed this way and it became a post production issue. In order get the look that we had actually shot a test for; we had to work with the lab. They tried to do it electronically and couldn't – which meant we had to print the scene onto an IP, then bleach bypass the IP. We telecinied the bleach bypass IP and finished the look in tape to tape correction

Paramount used a common top line and others were using a 1:85. This means the composition and framing can get really screwed up if you're not there to supervise. I personally would like to see HD-DVD in the future. It blows away everything else and is a much better representation of our work.

One more issue raised by Goi is the use of DVD for dailies. "I would have loved to have had them for Judas. They are better quality than anything we can get on location: especially if you're shooting in a remote location like I was for Judas -- which was shot in Morocco. Most people have portable DVD players or computers with them so it makes a lot of sense.

"The production started out with VHS dailies, which were horrible. We finally got them up to digi-beta, which was an improvement. My argument was that DVD dailies would be much better quality and easier for them to ship back and forth. The only potential drawback is that since you're not there to supervise the transfer, or check the encoding to see what rate it's transferred at, you could have an image that may not be as good as you'd hoped for. There is also the problem of seeing digital artifacts that may be confused as film artifacts. These problems can also come up with VHS, however I think most of the problems can be avoided by communication with the colorist and the compressionist.

I have participated in the telecine of my older films to DVD and I'm about to
start a new transfer of How U Like Me Now for the DVD release. It will
be mastered in HD with an anamorphically enhanced option on the disc. No
one has asked me to be on the commentary as of yet, though I supervise all of the transfers. If I had a choice, I'd do both the telecine and audio commentary.
The last couple of pictures I've done have been transferred to a HD master. More cases than not, they are planning for the DVD with the HD transfer. This is much better, once it's set in stone on HD then it's good to go for the DVD."

Goi adds that Paramount and post production supervisor Angela Spieles pushed back their orchestra recording time and the final mix two weeks in order to accommodate his availability to color time the movie. " I have never had a production company make such a huge effort to ensure that the final visual presentation was supervised by the
person who shot it. I appreciate their efforts.

"The technology has brought in all kinds of new things that nobody ever anticipated. If we want to maintain the integrity of our work than we will have to be there for the transfer. Most of the time they want us there, but not in every case. It's so easy for someone to just twist a knob in the telecine suite and undo all of our good work. We may need something in our contracts to guarantee that we are there and have control. "

Crudo agrees, "Having the cinematographer there ALWAYS helps the movie. Having one pair of eyes guiding the process is invariably good for the film. It's as much a part of our job as shooting the picture. It can't be done by committee or by people who are passing through. We have to get it right on DVD as we have to live with it for a long time."

Allen Daviau, ASC notes that he has it in his contract to participate in the telecine remastering of all of his films. "I'm currently working on the new master of E.T. It's an ideal situation where the negative has been preserved and properly stored and I am surrounded by good people."

Daviau also welcomes the idea of DVD dailies. "I haven't used them yet, but I would embrace the idea. It's obviously a higher-quality format. I personally sit in on the dailies transfer. Otherwise, it would be difficult to look at on any format. If I can't be there for the transfer, then I send it to someone I like to work with who knows what I like and stay in communication. I think communication is key to all of this"

Russ Alsobrook ,ASC who works in TV episodics such as Dreamworks' Undeclared, and HBO's Mind of the Married Man says his dailies are still distributed on VHS. "I have worked from semi one-lights with minimum correction or what they call "best-light" which is recording as much information as possible from the blacks to the highlights. We do the standard negative transfer to a digi-beta master then make VHS dubs. In addition to the generational loss that occurs, the quality of the dubs varies from day-to-day depending on the operator and the machine. Sometimes I'll get a nice clean machine and a guy who knows what he’s doing and other days the tapes look abysmal. Plus, if it can't fit it into a normal transfer schedule, then as many as three different colorists have worked on it—which makes it tough for the final colorist to match the look.

"In TV production, we don't have time to supervise the transfer. Sometimes they'll give me a tape from an on-lined show and I'll make notes from that to color correct accordingly. I try to sit down with the colorist and give them a plan or a general color scheme beforehand.

"Another consideration is the quality of the machine used for the original dailies transfer. I like the Rank C- Reality transfer machine. It's digital and hi-def ready. It uses a tube instead of a chip which gives it a rich, creamy look. A telecine machine can make or break the transfer.

I would love to see DVD dailies. The best thing about DVD dailies in my opinion is the
high-quality image, menu, scene accessibility and portability. I don't need a special deck to view it. DVD would be ideal because it's so universal. I can buy it off the shelf instead of looking for a digi-beta or beta-sp deck.

Steve Gustafson, executive creative director of Cinesite Hollywood's newly formed DVD division housed at Cinesite's PR0-TEK Media Preservation Services Center in Burbank, California, notes that they provide a wide range of digitizing imaging and asset management services.

"We are a Kodak company and Kodak has always been about picture. What's going on at Cinesite in terms of mastering and telecine to DVD is a marriage that needs to happen. Our long-term plan is to create a full digital pipeline between scanning and recording, mastering, preservation, and restoration. DVD is ultimately where that product will end up, so it's a synergy that makes a lot of sense.

Does this include DVD dailies for use by cinematographers? "This is something we are exploring" says Gustafson. "Timing is important. How quickly can we master a DVD-R for the DP to pop into a laptop set. A DVD can be utilized by the DP to check for shot composition, but without the benefit of telecine or color-correction, how useful is it to them? It can clog up the normal production pipeline."

While DVD may not have found a niche in dailies, Gustafson believes it is effective for DPS to showcase their work. "It is completely accessible for demo reels," Gustafson notes. "It is a great way to archive and organize material. The demos can be categorized in terms of action, drama, or comedy, and feature films, television, music video and commercials.

"DVD reels utilize menus and chapter stops. Instead of searching through hours of videotapes, the user can just point and click off a menu. The picture can even be advanced one frame at a time."

What does Gustafson see in the future? "Our hope is to combine forces with what Cinesite in Hollywood has to offer, with what we have out here. Once that happens, it will open up a new way for DPs and directors to manage their material after-the-fact. There are the standard post elements that will always have to be dealt with but things change once you get to a digital environment.

"Things will be done differently as we move away from the one-lights and VHS mastering to DVD, HD-DVD and possibly D-VHS, not to mention all of the other things that are starting to crop up in this digital environment that the consumer has made so popular."